Many things can shape a person from the time of their birth.
From the time of his birth, Heath Thomson, was shaped by his mother with her love by creating a gentleness in his inner being. The gentleness over the years not replaced but covered or protected with a hardness, a loneliness, a sense of self reliance. It was replaced because of the influence of his environment which surrounded him, his place in life thrust upon him by the lack of a father to guide him and provide the financial means to raise his family up to at least the poverty level of the country.
Heath did whatever was necessary to help his mother bring food on the table and keep a roof over their heads.
When he was a child, he was the man of the family. A small boy who nonetheless took his responsibility seriously. It was the responsibility of his place in the family which lead him into the mines to set charges and escape death on a daily basis. It was the responsibility of being the man in the family which lead him to work in his uncle and aunt’s hotel in Strawberry, earning him beatings and degradation on a daily basis. It was the responsibility as the head of the family which took the young man to war as a teenager.
It was the enticing money paid to sharpshooters, an elite group of men amongst thousands, the pay more than for just an ordinary soldier. As a teenager, with the money he sent home, his beloved mother didn’t have to work as hard and could relax for once in her young life. To see her working from sunrise to sunset each day caused his sapphire eyes to burn with pain and anger. Angry she had to live such a life. Angry the man who sired him didn’t have the decency to return to find out if he’d left a child behind. Angry his mother wouldn’t confide or confess the man’s name.
The sharpshooter money aided his mother and came at a high price to himself. A high price from incarceration in the confederate prison. A high price from the damage the prison and its caretakers had done to his inner being. A high price from the damage caused to his physical body requiring months of recovery.
After recovering, he worked various jobs, wandering from place to place. He sought a way to fight the demons inside him. He sought a way to calm his rage which he’d always had since birth but was unable to control after being liberated from the prison.
He wandered until he teamed up with Frank Sawyer as a deputy, helping the kind and able lawman clean up a town. The sheriff was the father figure he never had in his young life. He was seventeen years old when he became a deputy and nineteen when he quit. His mother was sick and the pay of a deputy would not come close to the cost of the care she needed in the hospital at Sacramento.
It was the months of hospitalization for his mother and the low deputy’s pay which sent the young man into wild horse capturing and taming. However, the pay from this venture took too long to earn and was not enough to keep the hospital’s administrators off his back.
It was the need to increase his earnings intake drastically which thrust him into his current profession. It was this profession which enabled him to send money to his Aunt Rachel who used it to ensure his mother received the medical care she needed. The medical care to enhance and lengthen her time in this world. This world which hadn’t given her much in the way of happiness except for a son with his father’s eyes, a son who knew more violence than peace, a son who’d do anything for his mother.
It was the need for money which turned Heath Thomson into a hunter of men.
A hunter skillful and sure on the trail, able to merge with the backgrounds around him and keep an eye on his prey. A hunter whose skills kept the money coming in, kept the hospital administrators happy during his mother’s last time on this earth.
The death of his mother had crushed his heart, his grief almost too much to overcome. She had been everything to him, she had been the only light in his blackened world. Her smile the sunshine in the storms of life. It was a desire to take his Aunt from the hellhole of his hometown which was responsible for stirring a sense of purpose within him after his mother’s death. The purpose set his mind on an end goal of building his own place on the land. A ranch where he could retire to and raise the horses he loved. A ranch for himself and his aunt, a haven away from the turmoil of the world.
It was the enticement of the reward on the flyer shown to him by his friend, Sheriff Frank Sawyer months ago which caught his attention. The flyer offering a reward of fifty thousand dollars to the capture of the man who murdered Thomas Barkley.
It was the enticement of the reward, in what could be his one last job, which would give him the money needed for the ranch and life he found himself yearning for. One last job and now he was on his way back to Stockton to claim his reward, toting the still living man, preferring to bring them in alive rather than dead.
Unlike others in his profession, he was not a man who preferred to bring in corpses. Sometimes it could not be avoided as the men he sought were not willing to give themselves up. He was not a killer but he had killed.
The lure of the bounty was bringing him to Stockton.
He was a bounty hunter and tracker of men.
Sighing to himself, Heath shook off an uneasy feeling rising up inside him as the strides of his modoc ate up the ground underneath her. A lead rope was tied to the horse holding Jake Garrett, the man whose reward was the bounty he had worked months on.
The day wore on and the closer he neared his destination of Stockton, he swore he felt a chill shivering his spine in the hot summer sun. His very vocal and complaining package turned quiet as the miles disappeared behind them. Stopping for a quick bite and to rest the horses briefly, Heath studied Garrett looking sneakily around with his eyes, waiting for someone or something.
Mounting up to continue their ride, Heath kept his rifle across his lap and his eyes roving under the brim of his hat. The murderer behind him had taken the life of the prominent California citizen over two years ago and it was rumored he’d been paid by some railroad officials for the deed.
No one had ever been sent to trial over the murder, no charges ever filed and this knowledge is what made the young hunter uneasy and on edge. No charges meant no public trial was ever held and the sharp mind of the hunter wondered what secrets the man he was toting held inside of him.
What would he reveal on the witness stand? What would he reveal about who paid him to commit the act of murder? Would he sing like a canary or be silent by claming up? Would those who paid him be wanting to silence the fugitive? Would they wait to see what the fugitive planned before making a move?
These questions ran through Heath’s mind as he rode, purposely taking a longer, lesser traveled route to the end of his destination. Sometimes going from point a to point b meant first traveling to c or d. Sometimes it was the difference between life and death.
His instincts for survival were honed over the years, growing sharper and saving him on more than one occasion. He was not about to lose Garrett or be killed in the process. Taking every precaution, he kept his prisoner tied at all times and in his control at all times.
The reward earned from this one bounty would be the start of his new life, his aunt’s new life. The desire to settle down and perhaps raise a family burned deep within him. Being an only child and being a bastard child, had left him with a void growing up. He had often contemplated if having siblings as a child would have filled the void or was the void caused by his lack of playmates due to his circumstances of birth. He was unsure even now as an adult, however, he did know he wanted a wife and lots of children. The sound of an innocent child’s laughter was perhaps one of the most beautiful tones in god’s creation.
The outskirts of Stockton lay ahead on the horizon and the sight of the buildings sent the hunter’s heels into the sides of his modoc, urging her to increase her pace. Gal sensing the anxiety in her master and feeling his signal, complied with the demand of the one who cared for her like a baby.
Garrett hung his head as he was lead down the streets of the town by the bounty hunter and he cursed under his breath, wondering why his brother hadn’t taken care of the blonde man on the trail and freed him.
Heath walked the horses down the street, his rifle still across his lap. Until the law signed for this man, he was not about to let his guard down. Relief sprang into the intense blue eyes at the sign of the sheriff’s office and he directed the horses to the rail out front.
Stopping and tying up Gal, Heath undid the lashings holding Garrett into the saddle and helped him down. Holding up the man for a moment to gather his legs under him, Heath pulled him on the arm and led him to the office door.
Opening the door and stepping aside, the flash of sunlight on metal forced him into a split second decision as the report of the rifle rang out through the town.
Grabbing hold of his prisoner’s arm, Heath propelled both men into the dirt of the street as a bullet whizzed by and hit the side of the building where Garrett’d been standing. Rolling over and jumping to his feet, the young hunter stood above his bounty and saw the end of the rifle jutting out over the side of the roof, searching for its target which lay between Gal and himself. Another shot sounded and the screeching cry of a horse thrust a knifelike pain into his heart.
Whipping his rife to his shoulder, Heath fired at the end of the weapon, a startled yelp and the pinging sound of his projectile hitting the metal could be heard over the screams of the citizens in the street. They dodged for cover, frightened at the unexpected violence erupting and disrupting their fairly quiet lives.
The sound of shots caused Sheriff Maden to bolt toward the door, reaching it in time to see the stranger fire a shot at a rooftop across the street. Fred watched a rifle fall out of the sniper’s hands and into the street, more than likely from the force of the bullet hitting it.
Heath turned and knelt on his knee when he felt the hairs in the back of his neck rise up from the feel of someone behind him. Seeing the sheriff’s badge, he yelled, “Watch my prisoner, Sheriff!”
Lunging to his feet, he ran across the street and down the alley reaching the end. Stopping, he knelt and peered around the corner, pulling back as the sound of more shots rang out and broke off pieces of the building, sending splinters into the face of the hunter.
Cursing, Heath felt the debris enter his face and lunged from his position landing on his stomach and firing at the back of the fleeing man who’d jumped on his horse. His shots sounded like one and the man flinched before falling backwards into the sparse grass.
Holding his rifle ready and pointing it at the still body on the ground, Heath climbed to his feet and slowly walked towards the attacker, making a half circle around the man. His face stung from the slivers embedded in it and the sweat from his forehead ran down into his eyes. Approaching the nonmoving figure, Heath slowly lowered the rifle at the sight of the open eyes staring upwards into the cloudless sky.
Fred called out as he walked around the corner, not wanting to startle the man holding a rifle and kneeling beside the man on the ground. Walking over he knelt beside the stranger and studied the body.
“Damn.” muttered Fred in disbelief.
Heath glanced at the lawman, “Know him?”
Nodding, Fred climbed to his feet and held out his hand, “Sheriff Fred Maden.”
“Heath Thomson, bounty hunter.” informed the blonde quietly waiting for the sheriff’s reaction to his profession, surprised when it was not the usual one of disdain and disgust, the same reaction he’d experienced from people since his birth as a bastard.
Fred felt an immediate liking of the quiet sure man before him, uncertain as to why the young man invoked such a feeling. Smiling, he replied, “You must not be very good if you bring them in alive, huh?”
Chuckling and relaxing at the friendly teasing barb, Heath moved his hand up to the left side of his face as he spoke, “Guess I like doing things the hard way, Sheriff.”
“Don’t touch those splinters.” warned Fred stopping the rising hand. “You should see the doc and let him make sure he gets them out all the way. They could get infected.”
Heath nodded and gestured downward with his rifle. “Who is this guy?”
Frowning, Fred bit his lower lip in thought. “That’s Jack Garrett in my cell, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, he’s got a fifty thousand dollar price tag on his head.” informed Heath curiously watching the older man.
Taking a deep breath, Fred motioned with his head and the two walked away from the body, “Yeah, I thought I recognized Garrett. This man was one of Tom Barkley’s hands at the time he was killed. Simpson was his name.”
“A Barkley hand?” whistled Heath, the implications flowing through his mind. “Boy howdy, that doesn’t sound good.”
“No, it sure doesn’t.” admitted Fred quietly as they crossed the street to the sheriff’s office, grabbing a passerby and sending him down the street for the undertaker to collect the body. Heath slowly knelt beside his dead horse and ran a strong gentle hand over her neck, his eyes filling with emotion, his throat choked with a lump of sadness and regret.
“Gal, I’m gonna miss you.” whispered Heath, grateful when the sheriff helped pull his saddlebags out from under his faithful companion. “She was a goer and none finer.”
“Modoc’s are great horses.” admitted Fred, taken back by the emotion in the man’s eyes. “I’m real sorry, Mr. Thomson.”
Heath patted the velvet coat one last time and sighed before standing. “Heath, not Mr. Thomson, Sheriff.”
“Well, I’m Fred, Heath. Why don’t you come in the office and I’ll ask my deputy to have some men take care of your horse for you.” suggested Fred quietly, seeing the hesitation in the man as he looked down at his horse before receiving a slight nod.
Following the lawman in the office, Heath wearily sank into one of the chairs and accepted a cup of coffee after Fred sent Billy out to take care of the dead animal. Taking out some paper from his saddlebags, Heath handed it over across the desk.
“If ya’ can fill this out, Fred, I’ll collect my bounty and get outta your hair.” drawled Heath taking a sip of coffee.
Taking the papers, Fred read them over and nodded. “I’ll be glad to fill them out, Heath, but you won’t get your reward until the banker’s back on Monday. Only he can sign over this amount of money from the bank, regardless of the reason. Bank policy.”
Leaning his head back against the chair, Heath’s loud groan of dismay filled the room. “Hell, that’s six days away.”
Smiling slightly, Fred apologized, “Sorry, I’d do whatever I could to speed up the process but he’s in San Francisco at a convention.”
Nodding at the sheriff’s sincerity, Heath smirked, “He might’ve left the country if I wired and warned him I was coming seeing how hard it is for bankers to part with money. I guess six days isn’t gonna kill me.”
Chuckling in agreement, Fred picked up his pen and dipped it into the inkwell, the scratching of the tip on the paper filled in the necessary information. Completing the task, he smiled and handed a paper to the blonde.
“Here’s your receipt, Heath. On Monday afternoon, we’ll be able to get your reward.” stated Fred shoving the other papers in his desk.
Opening his vest, Heath placed the receipt in the inside pocket and rebuttoned the small pocket. The pocket usually holding only his emergency money in case he lost his wallet. After receiving directions to the livery, a hotel and the town physician, Heath thanked the sheriff and left the office.
Leading his other horse to the livery and toting the saddle which the deputy had placed in the office while the two men completed their business, Heath frowned at the thought of staying six unplanned days in the town. Common sense forced him to realize it was a two day ride to Strawberry and then another two days back in good weather. Sighing, he resigned himself to opting for six days of rest during this unexpected holiday.
Resisting the urge to scratch his cheek from the itching of the embedded slivers, Heath curried the chestnut, his mind wondering about the almost immediate liking of the older lawman. The young hunter examined his out of character reaction towards this man, usually Heath preferred sitting back and watching instead of openly interacting with people. A trait unconsciously formed since the time he fully understood why he was treated differently than other children around him. Pausing for a moment, he decided the sheriff reminded him of Frank Sawyer. Both sheriffs had the same air about them, both about the same age, both inspiring confidence in their abilities to those they protected.
Satisfied with his reasoning, he fed the chestnut some oats, obtained a room in the hotel and stowed his gear. Leaving the hotel for the brief walk to the office of the town physician, he absently wondered what he could find to do in this town to fill in the six days of his unexpected holiday.
The closing of the office door behind the young bounty hunter had Fred pushing himself out of his chair and staring out the window at the once again busy calm street. Turning his head to look back towards the holding area of the jail, a deep scowl spread across the lawman’s face.
The bushwhacking attempt on the prisoner he surmised would not be the last one. Obviously someone was worried about what the man knew and wanted to silence him bad enough to risk sending someone in broad daylight. The knowledge one of the former Barkley hands was the sniper was even more disturbing, the sheriff could only assume the man had been working for the railroad at the time of Tom Barkley’s murder. Otherwise why would he be back in town a year after he left and trying to murder Garrett.
To protect this prisoner he was going to need more deputies. The entrance of Billy into the office thrust Fred’s thoughts to the back of his mind while he relayed his concerns for the prisoner to the young deputy.
“Stay here and keep the door locked.” ordered Fred putting on his hat. “I’m going to Jarrod’s office and let him know Garrett was brought in.”
“I saw Mr. Barkley riding out of town a few hours ago, Sheriff. Looked like he was headed home.” informed Billy receiving a nod from the sheriff before he left and locked the door behind him as instructed.
Fred was crossing the outer boundary of the Barkley ranch as Howard Merar was slowly extracting slivers from a young stranger’s face.
“Been in town long?” asked Howard politely, his words resonating and breaking the silence of the room.
“Bout an hour or two.” stated Heath quietly.
“Usually this is a nice town.” teased Howard, earning himself a lop-sided grin. “Are you planning on staying a while?”
“Only six days.” informed Heath, sucking in his breath as the stinging antiseptic was applied to his face by the physician’s sure fingers.
“This’ll stop any infection from the wood pieces. You’re lucky none of the pieces lodged in your eyes.” sighed Howard placing a bandage over the two butterfly stitches closing the small cut he had to make in the tan cheek to take out one stubborn sliver. “Just keep this on for a few days.”
“Sure thing, doc. Thanks.” drawled Heath placing some money in the physician’s hand. Turning to the door, he stopped and asked, “Say, doc, are there any ranches for sale around here?”
Howard replied, “There are two I know of. If you go down the street you can ask about them at the land office, last building on the corner. I believe they’re still open.”
Nodding, Heath put his hat on and left the office, his steps taking him down the boardwalk. The sun was slowly dipping to the horizon and weariness was starting to set in his body when he arrived at the closed land office. Taking out his pocket watch, he sighed in disappointment at being five minutes late.
His stomach grumbled informing the blonde it was expecting a decent meal instead of his normal trail food. His eyes caught sight of the sign for a restaurant and he crossed the street, entering the small establishment.
Taking a seat at a corner table, Heath smiled at the waitress and ordered as Fred Maden was knocking at the large oak door of the Barkley mansion. Taking off his hat in the entry, Fred smiled as Victoria and her family greeted him warmly.
“Fred, how nice to see you! This is a pleasant surprise. How’s Mary feeling?” inquired Victoria.
“She’s fine, Victoria.” smiled Fred, his eyes twinkling with gratitude at the concern shown to his ailing wife from their old friend.
Jarrod clapped the sheriff on the back and suggested, “Why don’t we go into the parlor and have a drink. Then you can tell us what’s brought you way out here in the country, Fred.”
Allowing the family to lead him into the parlor, Fred accepted a glass of scotch and took a sip of the smooth liquor before looking at the waiting faces. “Jake Garrett’s in one of my jail cells.”
“What!” exclaimed the voices in unison, the shock reflecting clearly on their faces.
“I’m surprised he showed back up here.” growled Nick, furious at the killer’s audacity.
“He was brought in by a bounty hunter.” informed Fred. “A man by the name of Heath Thomson.”
Tears of gratefulness sprang into Victoria’s gray eyes and she whispered, “I never thought he’d be caught. It’s been two years.”
Audra reached over and placed a comforting hand on her mother’s back, smiling into the gray eyes of the Barkley matriarch and offering her daughterly support. Dabbing at her eyes, Victoria returned the smile and directed her attention back to their family friend.
Jarrod’s blue eyes sparkled with anticipation at the closure he felt was near for the family. The last two years had been difficult and full of lingering questions. The family members had silently wondered if the murderer whose act drastically changed their lives would ever be caught.
Nick’s fury turned to happiness and his eyes caught his older brother’s as a wide grin broke across his face. “Now he can stand trial for what he’s done and get what he should’ve two years ago.”
“I agree brother Nick.” smiled Jarrod saluting his younger brother with his glass.
Clearing his throat, Fred watched their eyes turn back to him and he stated, “Someone shot at Garrett and would’ve killed him if Heath Thomson didn’t have the reflexes of a cat.”
“What happened, Fred?” queried Jarrod, puzzled at the admiration in the sheriff’s eyes at the bounty hunter’s name.
Relaying the story of the events which happened outside the door of his office, Audra interrupted the sheriff with a gasp, “His horse was shot? How horrible!”
“Yes, it is.” agreed Victoria sadly.
Fred frowned, “From his eyes, it was if he’d lost his best friend.”
Scowling, Nick felt his chest filling with emotion and his eyes burned with understanding of the man’s apparent connection with his mount. The same connection he felt with his own horse, Coco.
“He has another horse but I got the feeling his modoc meant the world to him.” sighed Fred. “Anyway, I put Garrett into a jail cell while he took off after the shooter.”
Fred’s story was interrupted again, this time by Jarrod’s exclamation, “Fred, wait a minute. This bounty hunter, Heath Thomson, left a man worth fifty thousand dollars to him and chased after the shooter?”
The sheriff nodded his answer and Nick scowled, “What kind of bounty hunter does something like that?”
A smile spread across Fred’s face at the looks of confusion and puzzlement on the members of the Barkley family’s faces. “I actually wondered the same thing myself. He sure doesn’t act like a typical bounty hunter. At least not the killers I’ve seen over the past years as sheriff.”
“Well, did he get the shooter?” asked Nick, his excitement reflecting in his voice, his hazel eyes intensely questioning the sheriff.
“Yes, he did. Unfortunately, he had to kill him in protecting himself when the shooter tried to get away.”
“Was Mr. Thomson harmed?” worried Victoria.
“He got some wood pieces in his face from the corner of the building, but other than that, he’s fine.” informed the sheriff, then adding as the quick action of the young bounty hunter flashed through his mind. “He seems right handy at protecting himself or else it could’ve been a different story.”
The collective sighs of relief filled the parlor and the family relaxed at the reassurance of the man’s well being.
“At least Mr. Thomson is safe.” stated Audra before asking. “Who tried to shoot Garrett?”
“It was Ted Simpson.” informed Fred quietly, the silence in the parlor deafening until the realization of the man’s identity sunk in. Jarrod glanced over towards his mother, her gray eyes filled with anger at the implications, her hands clenched in her lap.
“Ted Simpson?” stated Nick in disbelief looking towards the elder son of the Barkley family. “He was in with the railroad?”
Sighing, Jarrod shook his head, “That explains how they knew where Father was going the day of the murder. They had an inside man.”
Fred nodded and took a deep breath, “I was thinking the same thing when I saw him. I’m sorry for upsetting everyone, Victoria.”
Standing, the tiny woman walked over to the sheriff and placed a hand on his arm, her smile one of reassurance and gratefulness, “Nonsense, Fred. I’m happy you made the trip out here yourself to let us know. We appreciate it very much. I only wish we had gotten a chance to thank Mr. Thomson for bringing Garrett to Stockton before he left.”
Patting her hand, Fred smiled, “Heath Thomson’ll be here for at least six days. Mr. Pritchard’s out of town and won’t be back til Monday. We can’t pay his reward til then.”
“That’s wonderful. Please tell Mary I’ll be in to see her soon.” said Victoria walking their friend to the front door and seeing him off.
Standing in the foyer and looking at her family, she smiled. “Jarrod, tomorrow I’d like you to invite Mr. Thomson out to the ranch for dinner.”
“Mother, he’s a bounty hunter.” protested Nick. “For all we know, he could be a killer or not fit company for women.”
“Nicholas, I don’t believe I was asking permission.” stated Victoria firmly, her stance indicating her unwillingness to compromise.
Nick’s red face caused a chuckle to well up inside him and Jarrod nodded, “Yes, Mother.”
‘Idleness is the devil’s playground’ thought Heath with a sigh and a slight smile which widened after he looked up at the opening of the restaurant door in the stillness of the early morning and the town’s head lawman entered.
“Morning, Fred.” greeted Heath.
Fred smiled and returned the greeting as he approached the table and took a seat beside the young bounty hunter becoming customer number two of the day.
“I see you got all the splinters out, Heath.” said the older man pouring a cup of coffee from the pot on the table and ordering his breakfast. “I hope Dr. Merar treated you right.”
Subconsciously touching his cheek, his blue eyes filled with pain before he shut down his emotions with a nod and a slight lowering of his orbs. “Your town has a good physician in Dr. Merar, I hope your citizens realize how lucky they are.”
Fred studied the lowered profile and wondered what caused such a flash of pain in the eyes. His thoughts were broken by the approach of the waitress with his food. Smiling at the pretty young woman, Fred thanked her. Glancing over, he saw Heath’s eyes following her retreat to the door of the kitchen.
“Her name’s Mackenzie Knight.” stated Fred quietly, waiting til the hunter’s eyes turned back to him. “She’s a good girl.”
Blue eyes twinkled at the older man’s protectiveness and Heath nodded, “I can tell she’s a good girl, Fred. It’s usually a man who turns a good woman bad anyway. Believe me, I don’t want anything like that shadowing my conscience.”
The dry and bitter tone of the words out of the mouth of the young man left Fred frowning as he drank his coffee. This man at the table with him was a point of confusion and contrast to the lawman. He couldn’t be more than twenty years old, yet he acted and sounded far more mature, the maturity appeared to be coming from experiences of life, bad and good.
Heath sighed as the silence at the table continued and filled up both coffee cups before turning the conversation to neutral ground, “What are you gonna do about protecting Garrett while he’s in your jail?”
Sipping his coffee, Fred scowled, “I’ll have to hire more deputies since there’s only Billy and me. The founding fathers aren’t gonna like that.”
Chuckling, Heath’s eyes twinkled with amusement, “I know what you mean. When I was a deputy, the sheriff was always butting heads with the town council. They wanted him to protect the town but didn’t want to pay the piper. Always wanting something for nothing it seemed to me.”
“Where were you a deputy?” inquired Fred curiously, inwardly surprised for a moment before wondering if his past profession was the reason he’d brought Garrett in alive.
“Spanish Creek.” informed Heath smiling at the young woman watching from across the room causing her cheeks to glow with a rosy color. “Frank Sawyer is the sheriff there.”
“I’ve heard of him and how he cleaned up the town.” said Fred. “He’s a good man.”
“Yes, he is.” said Heath standing and holding out his hand. “Well, I gotta get my horse and be somewhere in a little while. See ya’ Fred. Good luck with the council, you’ll probably need it.”
“I’m sure of it. Bye, Heath.” acknowledged Fred, shaking the extended hand and finishing his coffee.
After paying the bill, smiling and tipping his hat to the young woman, Heath departed the small restaurant, stepping out into the warmth of the morning which promised a scorcher of a day. Walking to the livery, he entered the stall and saddled the chestnut, Brownie, his eyes blinking back the emotion stifling him, remembering his black modoc he lost the day before.
Taking a deep breath, he climbed into the saddle and walked the chestnut down the street stopping in front of the land office. An hour later, the hunter left the land office shoving a piece of paper in his pocket and climbed into the saddle.
The noonday sun reached down from the sky, touching it’s hot fiery fingers on the land and any other object it came across. The lone rider familiar with the elements of Mother Nature took her offering in stride and let the heat roll off his back. His blue chambray shirt was covered in sweat, his palms wet and his eyes squinted against the shimmering view of the horizon.
Stopping on a hill overlooking the last piece of real estate for sale, Heath Thomson, bounty hunter sucked in his breath and climbed down from the saddle. Ground trailing the reins of Brownie, sure in his training of the chestnut, he sat in the grass on the side of the hill, his hat pushed back up on his forehead, chewing on a long blade and contemplating.
Sapphire eyes gleamed in appreciation of the scene before him, the untamed desolation of the area stirred the wild animal housed deep inside him. The dilapidated cabin, set at the foot of the mountains hovering in the background, seemed small and minute. The barn was partially collapsed, the corrals and fences blown over or leaning. The ranch was a source of neglect, unwanted and unused.
Standing, he walked down the hill and whistled a command. Brownie’s ears moved forward and he trotted along after his master. His steps took him down onto level ground and he moved around the abandoned ranch, his eyes noting every detail, every item needing to be done before this could qualify as a working ranch was placed on a mental list, the list growing longer with each step.
Completing his inspection of the buildings and area, Heath climbed into the saddle, groaning when his jeaned bottom hit the boiling saddle and rode the perimeter of the area. Coming back to the hill after making the circle, he leaned forward and studied the buildings once more, taking a drink of water from his canteen. The site of the ranch was far away from it’s nearest town of Stockton and any judgmental eyes of the citizens.
To the boy without a childhood, forced to become a man too quickly, the condition of the unwanted and unused ranch seemed to match his own life and a slight smile lifted the corners of his mouth at his thoughts.
It was the perfect place to call home.
Putting the cap on his canteen, Heath turned Brownie and nudged him into a walk under the blistering sun, taking off his hat and wiping his forehead with his sleeve. Allowing the chestnut to travel at it’s own pace, the blonde relaxed in the saddle and let his thoughts wander.
The pretty face of MacKenzie Knight flashed in his mind and the desire to see her again had him wondering if he could entice her into a late supper or a walk under the moonlight.
“Idiot.” chided Heath outloud causing Brownie’s ears to twitch. “You can’t ask her out on a moonlight walk. You don’t even know her.”
Brownie tossed his head in response to the spoken words, unsure as to what he was agreeing with. Heath laughed and patted the chestnut’s neck, his tone wistful as he spoke to the only other living thing in his vicinity.
“Boy howdy, Brownie don’t start with me. I’m just thinking outloud is all. You’d understand and talk to yourself too if you looked into her eyes. I think they’re purple, maybe even violet. I’ve never seen a girl with violet eyes before.”
The chestnut shook his head again, Heath sighed and patted the strong neck of his mount. Shaking his head at himself, Heath smirked, “You’re probably right, Brownie. It’s kinda like putting the cart in front of the horse. Guess I should see what price they got on the ranch first, at least that’d be the sensible thing to do. Too bad I’m not always sensible, more stubborn than anything. I’m sure you agree with that.”
Snorting his agreement, Brownie stopped suddenly when his reins were pulled by his master. Heath stood up in his stirrups and stared at the herd of horses grazing across a small valley. A red colored stallion with its head up, keeping alert and guard over the herd watched the intruder who stopped on the other side of the area.
Taking the rope off his saddle, Heath slowly uncoiled it out of sight on the other side of his horse. Studying the area the horses were in, he smiled and turned Brownie, seeing the stallion changing positions to keep him in view before his peripheral vision was cut off when he disappeared around a hill.
Spying a gully which appeared to end close to the herd of wild horses, Heath urged the chestnut on, the thrill of the hunt rising up within him. The sight of the stallion brightened his eyes which recognized the quality of the animal even from the distance, estimating the horse was seventeen hands or higher.
Slapping the rope against the rear of Brownie, the intruder came out of the gully and startled the grazing herd. Dust raised into the air as the herd moved as one, the ground was dug up under the grinding hooves, the silence of the day split apart by the thundering noise. The mares and colts bolted, fear widening their eyes, their nostrils flaring from the exhilaration of their pounding hearts as they galloped away from the danger.
Sapphire eyes narrowed in concentration, the muscles of the chestnut moving beneath his legs, Heath urged his mount after the reward. Brownie’s gait ate up the space between his master and the stallion, his neck stretched out, his rider leaning low and encouraging him on.
The stallion ran from the intruder, dodging and seeking a means of escape, his mares forgotten in his dash of fright. His panic increasing as the intruder and his mount stayed with him, the flight towards freedom suddenly came to a halt when an object sailed through the air and wrapped itself around his neck.
Fighting the foreign object, the stallion reared up charging the intruder who expertly moved his mount away out of way of the dangerous hooves. The object still clinging to his neck, taking away his means of escape.
After several minutes of a game of dodging and evasion, with the end of the rope wrapped around his saddlehorn, Heath marveled at the strength and lines of the stallion. The muscular animal finally giving in, standing still with sides heaving, his eyes not leaving the intruder who with a flick of his wrist became his master. Reaching down and patting the chestnut’s neck in appreciation, Heath’s face lined with sweat and dirt couldn’t hide his blue eyes glistening with wonder and pride.
“Good job, Brownie. This is the type of hunt I prefer.” drawled Heath, nudging the chestnut and leading the stallion.
The afternoon was preparing to change into early evening when Heath rode down the near empty street towards the livery, nodding at the sheriff as he rode by and leading the stallion. Jarrod grinned at the sight of the red stallion being led by a stranger.
“Nick’s not going to like this, Fred.” surmised Jarrod gesturing to the passing rider. “He had his eyes on that stallion for some time now.”
Fred’s blue eyes sparkled and he shrugged, “Just let Nick know it’ll make up for his modoc.”
Surprised, Jarrod glanced down the street to the man who’d stopped and was speaking to someone on the boardwalk out of his sight. Looking back at the lawman by his side, Jarrod questioned, “That’s Thomson?”
“Yep.” replied Fred clapping the attorney on the back. “Com’n I’ll introduce you.”
The two men walked down the street to the livery in time to see the rider lead the stallion into a corral. Jim, the liveryhand, closed the gate behind Heath and the chestnut leaving the stallion inside. Jumping off, Heath tied the chestnut to the rail and watched the horse in the corral nervously running around and searching for an opening.
“Heath looks like you had a productive day.” said Fred running an appreciative over the horse in the corral.
“Sure did, Fred.” admitted the blonde, his eyes not moving from his bounty. “He’s a beaut isn’t he?”
“That he is.” replied Fred nudging the hunter in the arm and gesturing with his head. “Heath Thomson this is Jarrod Barkley. His father was Tom Barkley.”
Turning to the man the sheriff indicated, Heath took the extended hand firmly in his. “Mr. Barkley.”
Returning the greeting, Jarrod smiled into the sapphire eyes, puzzled at the familiar feeling rising up within him. “Mr. Thomson, it’s nice to meet you.”
Nodding, Heath flashed a slight smile before taking out his pocketwatch. “If you’ll excuse me, I have to make an appointment down the street. See you tomorrow, Fred.”
“Mr. Thomson, my family would like to invite you to dinner tonight at our ranch as a thank you for bringing in Jake Garrett.” informed Jarrod stopping Heath’s mount back onto his chestnut.
Fred watched a slight frown appear on Heath’s face before he drawled, “Thank you but I’ll have to decline. Thanks are not necessary. I did it for myself not for your family. It was nice to meet you, Mr. Barkley. Good night.”
Climbing on the chestnut, Heath turned its head and rode away from the livery til he reached the land office. Entering the building, he emerged later after Jarrod Barkley was on his way home without the man his Mother was looking forward to meeting.
Arriving at the ranch, Ciego took Jarrod’s horse and he entered the large mansion. The sound of the closing door brought the rest of the family into the foyer and Jarrod shook his head at the questions in their eyes before placing a kiss on his mother’s cheek.
“How was work today, Jarrod?” asked Victoria linking her arm in his and leading him into the parlor where Nick handed him a drink.
“It was fine.” replied Jarrod. “I met Mr. Thomson today.”
“Did you extend my invitation for dinner to Mr. Thomson?” queried Victoria taking up her glass of sherry and sitting on the divan.
Nodding, Jarrod sipped his drink before hesitantly replying. “He declined, Mother. He said no thanks were necessary as he did it for himself and not for our family.”
Nick rolled his eyes and snorted, “We already know he went after Garrett for the ransom.”
Audra smiled at her brother and shook her head. “Nick, maybe he doesn’t feel comfortable having dinner with a bunch of strangers.”
“Perhaps you’re right, Audra.” nodded Victoria with a smile at her daughter’s insight. “I was anxious to thank Mr. Thomson and didn’t consider how he might feel.”
Smiling to himself as he remembered the sight of Heath leading the stallion down the street, Jarrod looked up into the questioning faces. “Mr. Thomson is certainly a fine judge of horseflesh.”
Nick saw the glimmer in the blue eyes of his older brother, his suspicions rose up and he asked, “What makes you think so, Jarrod?”
Shrugging, Jarrod looked over to his mother and winked, “Seems while he was out this afternoon, Mr. Thomson managed to catch a horse which has eluded over three fourths of the men in this valley.”
Victoria’s gray eyes turned to her rancher son, a small hand reached up and covered the smile on her face at the blank look on the tanned face which turned to confusion then to anger, before the shouted words filled the mansion at every level.
“HE CAUGHT THE RED GHOST?”
Rising earlier than normal the next morning, Heath quickly shaved and dressed. Taking one last glance in the mirror, he hurried out of the hotel and down the street. The sun had not even considered waking when Mackenzie Knight approached the small restaurant.
Breathing deeply in the early morning air, she could taste the hint of dew and she was looking forward to greeting the sun. The morning had always been her favorite time of the day and a horizon bursting with orange, yellows and red was a sight one never forgot.
The sight of the handsome blonde from the morning before slowed her steps and her eyes darted around. It was unusual for a customer to be waiting outside the restaurant thirty minutes before it’s opening. While the sight of the muscular man yesterday sent her stomach fluttering, this morning it caused her stomach to tense with nervousness.
Heath took off his hat and held it in his hands in front of him. Smiling into the violet eyes, he cleared his throat when he realized she seemed afraid of his presence.
“I’m terribly sorry, Miss Knight, I didn’t mean to frighten you.” apologized Heath. “Perhaps this wasn’t one of my best ideas.”
The sincerity in his voice and his nonthreatening demeanor relaxed her slightly. Chiding herself internally for her fear, she smiled slightly. “I’m sorry. You just surprised me is all, uh, Mr. “
“Thomson.” smiled Heath, his sapphire eyes sparkling. “Heath Thomson.”
Holding out her hand, she nodded, “Mackenzie Knight, Mr. Thomson.”
Taking her hand in his, Heath felt a warmth travel up his arm and he lost himself in her eyes. Mackenzie found herself gazing into the sapphire eyes before forcing herself to withdraw her hand from his. Her heart beat wildly in her chest and she swore her knees were made of cotton.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Thomson?” asked Mackenzie, her voice soft and low.
Startled from his examination of her eyes, Heath chuckled and shook his head. “I’m terribly sorry, again, Miss Knight. I seem to have been daydreaming. I am here on this early morning to request the honor of escorting you to a late lunch this afternoon, Miss Knight.”
“I am not in the habit of dining with strange men, Mr. Thomson.” stated Mackenzie quietly. “Especially when the man in question is just passing through town.”
Heath quickly replied, “I was under no impression you would even consider such a thing, Miss. Knight. Yes, I was passing through town until last evening when I purchased or actually placed a retainer on a ranch in the desire to call this fine town my home. I thought perhaps talking over a late lunch in the view of all of Stockton’s upstanding citizens would be a lovely way to get to know one another, Miss Knight.”
Violet eyes twinkled with amusement at the blonde standing before her, hat in hand, his eyes wide with anticipation. Smiling slightly, Mackenzie lowered her eyes and looked back up.
“Mr. Thomson, I’d like some time to consider your invitation of a late lunch.”
Heath smiled widely and nodded, “Certainly, Miss Knight. I shall return at the start of the business day.”
Putting on his hat, he turned on his heel and walked down the street, stopping in front of the sheriff’s office and leaning on a post. His grin could be seen from her viewpoint and she wondered if her smile matched his as she opened the door to the restaurant.
Heath jumped slightly at the voice behind him, “New job as a post keeper upper, Heath?”
“We all gotta make a living somehow.” grinned Heath turning towards the voice. “Morning, Fred.”
Chuckling at the blonde, Fred smiled, “Heading to breakfast. Care to join me?”
Nodding, Heath fell in step beside the sheriff and walked down the boardwalk with him. “Were you able to get a couple deputies to help guard Garrett?”
“Yeah, not without an argument from the council though.” snorted Fred opening the door to the restaurant and greeting Mackenzie. “Course after I reminded them who Garrett murdered, they gave in.”
Sitting at the table, Heath smiled and gave his order under the watchful eye of the older man. Heath took some sips of his coffee and turned his thoughts to the lawman beside him.
“Do you think someone else’ll take a stab at Garrett?” asked Heath intently.
Shrugging, Fred sighed, “Depends on who he can implicate as far as the murder, I guess. I was thinking about something last night, Heath.”
Curious, Heath raised his eyes upwards and leaned forward on the table, “Yeah?”
“It’s been eating at me since the other day. How did they arrange to take a shot at Garrett? You didn’t wire ahead and you told me yourself you stayed away from any towns and such on the way here.” puzzled Fred. “How did they know you were bringing him in?
A frown darkened Heath’s eyes and he shook his head, the same thought had run through his mind after the attempt on Garrett’s life.
“I don’t know. I was asking myself the same questions later after all the excitement died down.” admitted Heath, thinking back on the trip to Stockton.
“Maybe someone was keeping an eye on Garrett and saw you catch him.” suggested Fred.
Chuckling, Heath shook his head, “No, somehow I don’t think that’s it.”
“Why not? Whoever paid for Tom’s murder would probably want to keep tabs on Garrett? Maybe they were looking for him themselves to shut him up.” stated Fred, irritated at the laughter coming from the young bounty hunter. “Well, why not?”
“I’m sorry, Fred.” stammered Heath between bursts of laughter. “No one but me and Mother Nature was around when I caught Garrett quite unaware and unable to defend himself.”
A scowl spread across the sheriff’s face and he asked, “What do you mean?”
“Imagine this, Fred. In the middle of nowhere, Garrett is pulling up his pants after answering the call of nature.” winked Heath, his eyes twinkling.
The other patrons in the restaurant were startled by the outburst of laughter from their quiet lawman and the table in the corner drew all eyes to it. Aware of the stares, Fred shook his head and smiled, “Kinda hard to grab your gun when your hands are occupied.”
Nodding, Heath saluted the lawman with his coffee cup and stated, “That’s why I know no one saw the capture. He could’ve been on his way to meet someone and when he didn’t show up, they mighta figured it was a possibility he’d been caught.”
“Yeah, I suppose so.” admitted Fred with a sigh. “Did Garrett say anything to you on the trail?”
Shaking his head, Heath smiled at the deliverer of their food before answering, “He talked but mostly I ignored him. I got the impression he was expecting someone to get him out of his predicament though. He kept looking around, searching with his eyes.”
Both men ate their meals, contemplating the events which had taken place. Heath filled their cups and he sipped his coffee, running through his mind the two week journey to Stockton, unable to come up with anything out of the ordinary.
“If we could find out who hired the Barkley’s former hand I killed, we’d more than likely find out who hired Garrett to take out Mr. Barkley.” said Heath. “I could try to find out who paid Simpson for ya’ Fred. Everyone leaves a trail, either on paper, on the ground or by eye witnesses. I got a few days to kill.”
Surprised at the offer, Fred gave his head a negative shake, “Thanks for the offer but I’ll leave it up to the lawyers and the courts to get to the bottom of it, Heath. Besides, I thought you’d be spending time with the Red Ghost.”
“Red ghost?” repeated Heath before understanding flashed in the blue eyes. “You mean the stallion?”
“Almost every able bodied man in this valley’s been trying to catch him. They started naming him the Red Ghost bout a year ago. Some are gonna be mighty upset an outsider caught him.” grinned Fred, picturing the angry face of one dark haired rancher in particular.
“Well, if it’s any consolation, I’ll only be an outsider til Monday afternoon.” drawled Heath with a wink. “As long as the law in this area don’t object, I’ll be staying here permanently.”
“I’ll see if I can persuade the law into letting you stay.” smirked Fred returning the broad smile of the blonde across from him. “You planning on living in the hotel?”
“Boy howdy, no way!” exclaimed Heath with a shudder. “Staying in town for six days is gonna be trying enough on my nerves! No, I put a retainer on the Pierce ranch yesterday.”
Picking up his cup, Fred took a sip and nodded, “They say that ranch is haunted. Did the land agent tell ya’ that?”
“He might’ve mentioned something about it. I got enough ghosts dogging my heels, one or two more ain’t gonna matter.” sighed Heath, regretting his automatic words at the puzzled look from the older man. “Since you won’t let me track, I’ll just spend the morning training the Red Ghost. If you need any help with Garrett, just let me know. It wouldn’t be the first time I babysat an adult.”
“You’ve done more than enough Heath.” acknowledged Fred with a grin. “I might stop by later and see how you’re fairing at the livery.”
“Sure thing.” drawled Heath walking to the counter to pay his bill and glancing into the violet eyes. “Miss Knight, how are you this fine morning?”
“Just fine, Mr. Thomson.” replied Mackenzie and adding with a smile. “I’d be honored to have you escort me to lunch today, Mr. Thomson.”
“The pleasure and honor would be all mine, Miss Knight.” grinned Heath tipping his hat. “I shall collect you at two o’clock.”
Nodding in agreement, Mackenzie watched the broad back leaving the restaurant and smiled to herself, the excitement of the lunch date awakening the butterflies within her.